BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin during an economic forum in St. Petersburg next week, an EU spokeswoman said on Friday.
Confirming the EU chief executive's schedule for the coming week at a news briefing, the spokeswoman said Juncker would, as previously announced, attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on Thursday and Friday and that while there he would hold his first meeting with Putin since November 2014.
Relations between Moscow and the European Union have been strained since an EU move to bring Ukraine into a trade pact and Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine. Mutual sanctions have been in force for two years and EU leaders are likely to roll over their measures.
Juncker has argued for better relations with Russia and said in October that EU policy on the matter should not be "dictated" by Washington. On Friday, the spokeswoman said Juncker had made clear that his visit to Russia would not change the EU's stance.
"I find it very important to try, at least in economic questions, to move towards Russia," she quoted Juncker as having said last week. "I can assure you there won't be a softening of European positions in St. Petersburg."
Juncker's acceptance of the invitation to the annual Kremlin-run, high-profile gathering of business and political figures provoked criticism among some Europeans who fear that resolve to maintain sanctions over Ukraine is weakening.
EU officials pointed out that numerous national leaders and ministers, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, had visited Russia in the past year.
(Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Gareth Jones)